By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
IN A BASEMENT APARTMENT on 22nd Avenue in south Minneapolis, a round-faced woman six months removed from Mexico fries chiles on her stove. Despite the welcome heat from cooking, Maria, who asked that her last name be withheld, says there's a downside to spending too much time in the kitchen: "It's really gross to be making dinner when the roaches come out," she says, pointing to a cockroach crawling on the countertop.
Living one flight up is Fabiola Rojas, a pretty young woman raising two-year-old Emiliano. In addition to roaches and mice, Rojas's apartment has flaking lead paint, and little Emiliano recently tested positive for lead poisoning.
Both women say the building lacks heat, and on a 25-degree afternoon their vents felt cool to the touch.
In a building across the street, the situation is similarly grim. One woman, a tired-looking cleaning lady who wouldn't give her name for fear of eviction, shares a one-bedroom apartment with her three children. Aside from a TV on a small desk and a thin mattress on the floor, her living room has no furniture. She had to throw it all out, she explains, because of the bedbugs that infested the apartment in the fall. She vacuums daily and has tried all the pest killers she can find, but the bugs remain.
"If we get something new," she says, "it'll just fill up with bedbugs again."
These are not isolated incidents, and the tenants share one common denominator: Spiros Zorbalas, the brash bon vivant who owns and manages their buildings, along with more than 40 others in south Minneapolis. Many of the more than 700 units of housing he owns, particularly those occupied by poor, Hispanic tenants, are notorious for rodent and roach infestations, boarded windows, broken appliances, water-logged and crumbling floors and ceilings, overflowing dumpsters, drug activity, and lack of heat in winter.
Since arriving on the local real estate scene in the late 1990s, Zorbalas has been sued more than 200 times, primarily by tenants demanding repairs or former tenants seeking the return of their security deposits. Zorbalas has also had one rental license revoked for ignoring drug dealing, and been forced to pay $13,000 to a carpet-cleaning company for a year's worth of unpaid services and another $15,000 when a mother holding her infant son slipped and fell on a loose plastic runner in one of his stairwells.
City leaders do not disguise their disdain for Zorbalas. Councilman Gary Schiff, who has many of Zorbalas's most dilapidated properties in his south Minneapolis ward, says he is the worst landlord in the city. "This guy has lowered the bar for slumlords," Schiff fumes.
But while city officials insist steps have been taken to guard against landlords like Zorbalas, the trim, olive-skinned 44-year-old, who spends most of his time at his $5.5 million beachfront estate in Naples, Florida, remains one of the largest rental property owners in Minneapolis.
For his part, Zorbalas says he takes care of his tenants, and that those with grievances are but a vocal few. He also says that anything written in City Pages will have no impact on his bottom line. "There'll be a little hoopla for a week," he says. "Big deal. We're going to keep running our business." And in any case, he says, "I have nothing to hide."
THE SON OF GREEK IMMIGRANTS who moved to the East Coast after World War II, Zorbalas got a dubious start to his business career. Court records show that at the precocious age of 22, and fresh out of Dartmouth College, Zorbalas was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Although the available records—a plea agreement from a later case—do not elaborate, they note that due in part to a previous conviction for larceny, he was handed a five-to-ten-year prison sentence, of which he would serve 18 months. (Despite signing the plea agreement, Zorbalas now claims he's innocent of the charges. "I don't believe there's anything to that," he says.)
In 1988, shortly after getting out of prison, Zorbalas moved to Minneapolis and bought a house on Holmes Avenue. But the now 25-year-old had barely had a chance to adjust to the weather before he was back in trouble with the law.
Earlier that year, Zorbalas had purchased a 10-year-old, jet-black BMW. On a trip to Chicago less than a month later, he reported it stolen. After he filed a claim with American Family Insurance, the company reimbursed Zorbalas $18,380 for the car, along with $600 to Snappy Car Rental for his use of a loaner.
But that September, a suspicious insurance investigator spotted the BMW parked down the street from Zorbalas's house, according to court records. The investigator contacted the police, which had the BMW towed and impounded. That night, someone cut through the fence at the impound lot, beat up the security dog, and stole the car. A month later, police officers found the BMW parked three doors down from Zorbalas's house. When they swooped in to arrest him, he tried to run away.
While waiting for the charges to be filed against him, Zorbalas decided to become more acquainted with the legal system, enrolling at the University of Minnesota Law School. In October 1989, just two months into his first semester, Zorbalas was served with a federal indictment. Charged with five counts of mail fraud, he copped to one, admitting to filing a false insurance claim. Pleading guilty in state court to possession of stolen property, Zorbalas acknowledged an added deception: In order to maximize his insurance check, he'd altered the sales receipt of the car from $21,500 to $24,500.